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Since the era of open tennis began in 1968, there has never been a governing body for professionals with the clout to serve the best interests of the game. Money has been the ruling factor. The payment of appearance fees has been standard operating procedure at many tournaments. In some cases, as with golf, those fees exceed the top prize money. At an ATP San Francisco tournament earlier this year, Agassi, the No. 2 seed, was said to have been paid $175,000 just for showing up. The No. 1 seed, Brad Gilbert, received $20,000. Agassi earned only $32,400 for winning the event, and Gilbert was paid his fee even though he lost his first-round match to a virtual unknown.
The recent history of tennis has seen a free-for-all struggle for power among IMG, ProServ, Advantage International, the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the Women's International Professional Tennis Council, the Women's International Tennis Association, the ATP Tour, various national governing bodies, such as the U.S. Tennis Association, and independent operatives like Ion Tiriac.
That chaos has suited IMG to a T, because the company feasts on disarray. "With the ATP package, IMG is dominant," says Eugene L. Scott, 52, a former Davis Cup player and the editor-in-chief of 'Tennis Week. "If you were a 17-year-old player and saw what IMG was going to undertake, you would sure as heck want to be part of the IMG stable. And once there, well, information is money in this business. Someone is always looking for players for outings and the like."
How about if you are a 12-or 13-year-old player? You might already be in IMG's stable, though unofficially, by being enrolled in Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which IMG bought for an estimated $8 million in 1987. "It's all part of McCormack's idea of vertically integrating IMG," says one former employee. "He'd like to control the means of production so he can get the young players like Monica Seles."
Bollettieri students Seles, Agassi and 17th-ranked Jim Courier all signed with IMG after the company bought the academy. But Kain, the head of IMG's tennis division, vigorously denies that IMG purchased the academy to have control of a tennis factory. "There's cheaper ways to recruit junior prospects than that," Kain says. "It wasn't in the factoring one iota. We did factor in the ability to open Nick Bollettieri tennis centers around the world, however."
Some of these tennis centers are targeting serious B and C level adult players as their market—all part of IMG's move into resort management. Other Bollettieri Tennis Centers will be modeled after the academy in Florida, which is set up to train world-class junior players who live, go to school and play tennis there full-time. IMG recently opened one such center in Italy.
The company is also trying to sell less developed countries on the idea of letting IMG build and run national training centers based on the Bollettieri approach, a concept that IMG began exploring once tennis became an Olympic sport. Thus will IMG sow the seeds for the future representation of a generation of tennis stars from Thailand, say, or Kenya, while at the same time building a working relationship with the governments of those countries. Should those relationships be fruitful, who do you think would get the call to organize the first Kenyan Open? The IMG web that will ensnare the tennis player of the 21st century is being woven today.
"Why don't I deal with McCormack?" asks Chatrier, who, like many other members of the tennis establishment, feels that IMG should represent clients or tournaments, but not both. "I have an increasingly hard time with some of the things he promotes, the exhibitions like that tiebreaker Shootout in Milan. I am a man of tradition, so how can I be associated with that?"
The Shootout, which will be held for the first time in November, is an IMG creation that is being promoted as tennis's answer to the Skins Game. It is a made-for-television event that will last two hours. Eight players, including IMG's Lendl and Agassi, will play a minitournament of 12-point tiebreakers. The winner of each tiebreaker will advance toward a grand prize of $200,000.
"Things like that are not good for the sport," says Chatrier. "It isn't right to make a circus of the game."